In celebration of Black Philanthropy Month in August, the Trust is featuring a series of conversations with Black philanthropists making their impact across the Chicago region.
Connie L. Lindsey lives her life with the understanding that “to whom much is given, much is required” and identifies herself as a “servant leader.” This understanding and lived experience has informed her approach and passion for giving back throughout her career and in her role as a civic leader.
Whether serving in senior leadership roles at Northern Trust, Chicago, most recently as Executive Vice President and Head of Corporate Social Responsibility, serving as former National Board President of Girl Scouts of the USA, or serving on the board of the American Cancer Society, and The Chicago Community Trust, Connie L. Lindsey has invested her time and resources in causes and people she cares about. Her goal is to touch or help change people’s lives by centering her philanthropic commitment around impact, access, and inclusion.
Connie recently sat down with Nina Alcacio, director of public relations at the Trust, for a conversation about how philanthropy has touched her life. Some questions and answers have been edited and condensed for clarity:
Nina Alcacio (NA): What does it mean to you to be a philanthropist?
Connie Lindsey (CL): Early on, I didn’t consider myself a philanthropist. When we think about philanthropists, we usually think about individuals who are millionaires and billionaires making extraordinary financial contributions. Over time, I looked at the actual definition of a philanthropist, and the etymology of the word loosely means a lover of people, an individual who cares about humankind. That definition most accurately aligned with my approach, along with the understanding that financial contributions are an important aspect of philanthropy as well.
NA: Tell me how your philanthropic journey started.
CL: My journey towards philanthropy was how I perceived it as a little girl growing up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who once lived in public housing. I experienced philanthropy through receiving. I received the gifts of time, love, compassion, and the talent of individuals who poured into me. I often say these were the people who wrote on the tablet of my heart because they gave what they had, and often it was not monetary. Those gifts certainly had financial implications in the long run. It taught me the value of investing time and money in causes and on behalf of people I cared for.
Growing up, my family had few material or financial resources. If you looked at data and statistics based on where I grew up, it would have suggested that nothing you read on my bio would have been possible. The difference was that I was surrounded by people who affirmed my worth as a human being, who said, “You are a divine idea in the mind of God, and therefore, everything is possible with preparation and determination.”
NA: You spoke about the influence of your childhood and what it meant to receive from others. Do you recall a particular experience that inspired your commitment to serving your community and giving?
CL: My earliest philanthropic experience was being a Girl Scout in my church in Milwaukee. As an introverted young girl, eight or nine years old, I did not talk much, but I was an avid and voracious reader. I recall fondly having a troop leader who said to me, “You matter. You are not what is the matter.” I also experienced the leadership and compassion of the Pastor of my church, our choir director, serving and caring for people they did not know but understand how they could alleviate suffering or develop future leaders. In High School, the powerful impact of Inroads, Inc. started me on my corporate journey and helped define the connection between giving back while pursuing one’s corporate career.
My experiences growing up helped me realize that a close relationship with those we serve is not required to have an impact. The reverberations from a good deed or goodwill can go to places I might never be, paraphrasing the Indian proverb; “Blessed is she who plants trees under whose shade she will never sit.”
In my faith tradition as a Christian, scripture tells us that it is more blessed to give than to receive; what does that mean? It doesn’t mean you pour out so much that you become an empty vessel. Instead, you give in a way that creates a virtuous cycle of giving in the universe. Observing those values in action in the people who loved and cared for me, including my Beloved mother, helped solidify that connection.
NA: Could you talk about some of the causes you choose to support and why those are important to you?
CL: Justice and equity are the core of my philanthropy. The economic empowerment and education of women and girls, particularly in the Black and Brown community, are areas of focus as well. I am also very much involved in issues related to cancer. One of the strategic focus areas for The American Cancer Society is advancing health equity-addressing cancer disparities. The goal is to eliminate barriers and address needs to ensure everyone has the same opportunity to be healthy and cancer-free. This philosophy of eliminating systemic and structural barriers to provide access and opportunity for people of color is foundational to my philanthropic work.
NA: You are a member of The Chicago Community Trust’s Executive committee and several other boards. What do you think the role of philanthropy is in advancing change?
CL: We started talking about philanthropy in the broadest context of money. We need money to fuel the missions of organizations. I think the role of philanthropy is to elevate the understanding of the issues and needs in society through data, along with engagement that requires proximity with those affected by decisions made by philanthropists. For example, in our city of Chicago, research has shown that your zip code can influence how long you live. We’ve heard it said, “Where you live should not dictate whether you live.” I think the most significant impact philanthropists can make is by connecting the dots between government, nonprofits, and the people that make up our communities, society, and the world and having frank conversations that provide long-term human-centered ideas.
NA: We have spent the past two and a half years living through a pandemic, while at the same time, social justice issues have come to the forefront. What role do we as individuals have in advancing change?
CL: It is important for all of us to be willing to hear things that make us uncomfortable. To bear witness to the pain and struggle that so many people face daily and be courageous enough to be a part of the solution. It is easy for those who find themselves in places of comfort to ignore or not focus on the needs of others. But it only takes one “suddenly,” as a friend of mine refers to it, to change our lives forever. Comfortable and well one day and suddenly disease enters your life, loss of employment or someone in your family or a loved one needs your support.
NA: You’ve started down this path of my next question. Is there a message you would send someone at the beginning of their philanthropic journey?
CL: I quote an African proverb in some of my talks: “If you think you’re too small to make a difference, try sleeping in a closed room with a mosquito.” You picture that, right? You’ll hurt yourself trying to get rid of that mosquito. You can do something; we can all do something to support others. I encourage people to be civic leaders by first knowing themselves. What are the things you care about? Understand the issues, and clarify your “why.”
As you think about approaching auxiliary boards or advisory boards, consider that organization’s mission. And if and when you join, show up fully ready to serve. Understand that, depending on the organization, the ultimate outcome is to touch or positively impact the lives of the people being served.